The concept of trust in public participation

Thought I will stray a bit from my illustration/artsy/design posts and talk about a very simple concept in public participation in urban planning. It’s so simple, yet it’s so hard to get.


Simply put, if you want to get something done with a group of people, i.e. a community, you need to get their trust. If you want to solve a community problem –  for example, a lack of jobs or affordable housing, a need for public space, etc. – you need to get a community’s trust. If they don’t trust you, or there’s tension among the community, it will be very difficult to get things done.

But really, how do you establish a community’s trust?

This really depends on the type of project that an urban planning department is trying to implement:

Below is a diagram from the Public Participation Litmus Test which describes first when to do public participation:

Litumus Test For Public Participation

Essentially, a situation which is okay for people to be willing to participate in public participation is when: there is low cost and lots of benefit (or lots of things in it for them; i.e. lots of things at stake).

This is very important to attempt to convey; there has to be a lot of stake for a community for a community to participate, with little barriers of access, in order for a community to participate.

The question really is: what is considered a lot at stake is a very constructed view; i.e. it is a perception.

For example, we (i.e. the city planner) will perceive that a transit oriented development and creating walk-able cities is a very important issue in creating sustainable, resource-efficient healthy cities. We want our people to be healthy, we want our air to be healthier, we want to not depend on gasoline to move from one place to another, etc. etc.

But, the person may not be concerned with these issues. A working class dad is much concerned about being able to pay the rent, spend more time with family, and have a high quality of life. This person does not have time to focus on “walk-abilty” because to his eyes and ears, it is a concept he cannot relate to.

This is the key to establishing trust; how can you make these ideas of sustainable cities a worthwhile goal that people really should be concerned about, or have a huge stake on, that is framed around the user?

While I like the public participation litmus test, it assumes that there are a lot of issues that aren’t at stake for the majority of people. When, in reality, they are. We need to start worrying about the environment, education, housing costs for our children, transportation, public health, economy, etc. The question, is how?

It really is a legitimate concern that people don’t have time to participation (i.e. due to work, bureaucratic environment of the government, etc.); this is where you need to lower the barriers of access to engaging in public participation.

The process of lowering the barriers of access is, from one perspective, increasing trust. How do you increase trust?

I don’t have an answer to this question immediately; however, check out some examples of organizations and people who have attempted to find ways to engage people that lower the barriers of access and make it easy for people to be informed, engaged, in day-to-day urban planning issues:

By breaking down the barriers of access and re-framing the question to fit the needs of the user, which then increases the stakes of a particular issue, I believe this helps increase trust in a urban planning process. However, it is important to acknowledge that trust is one stage of public participation, as how does one keep the public engaged in a public issue for a longer period of time?

This entry was posted in city planning, lessonsfromparticipatoryplanning, participatory plannng. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The concept of trust in public participation

  1. Pingback: My attempt to work on a comic on food deserts! | Francis Chen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s